The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848 led to a tremendous increase in the amount of gold bullion coming into the Philadelphia Mint for coinage. To expedite substantial domestic and international transactions, a Double Eagle $20 was proposed in an amendment to the 1849 Gold Dollar legislation. By 1854, a mint was opened in San Francisco, California, and large-scale production of gold coins began. For the next 80 years, gold coins would serve in the channels of commerce.
The designer and engraver of the Double Eagle was the 4th Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, James B. Longacre, who is perhaps best known as the designer of the first small cents (Flying Eagle and Indian Head designs). In 1859-60, the Assistant Engraver Anthony C. Paquet produced a slightly modified reverse for the Double Eagle that featured taller lettering and a narrower rim. The design was accepted, and production began in early January 1861 in both Philadelphia and San Francisco.
It was realized almost immediately that the narrow rim resulted in excessive abrasion and an abrupt halt was made at the Philadelphia Mint. The entire mintage except for two pieces was melted. Even though a telegraph was sent to San Francisco to stop using the new Paquet reverse, a delay in the communication of that order led to the release of some 19,250 pieces. As a consequence, some 150-200 of the 1861-S Paquet Reverse $20s are known today. Although none are in Mint State, VF-XF examples trade in the mid five-figures, XF-AUs go into the upper five to low six-figure range.
As for the 1861-P Paquet, it has become one of the great rarities of U.S. Numismatics. The finest is the recently-sold MS-67, which bears a long and illustrious pedigree. Past owners include such numismatic luminaries as William Jenks, Lorin Parmelee, Virgil Brand, FCC Boyd, King Farouk, the Norweb Family and others. Its current value is estimated around $8 million.
The other piece is an MS-61, discovered in Paris in the mid-1960s and in the possession of a Texas bank collection for many years. It has been sold a couple of times since by Heritage Numismatic Auctions in the $1.6 million range.